Kettlebell benefits from a PT perspective…

We have devolved relatively recently, from a hunter-gatherer-moving culture, into a sitting-slouching-computer-culture: Even the active amongst ourselves need to examine how many hours in the day are we consistently moving? How long do we sit for extended periods of time without breaks? How long and active are those breaks?


Humans had functioned as 2-legged upright arthropods until pretty much the 20th century. Beginning with industrialization, and developing with computerization, we have become more and more sedentary, with the well-known side-effects: obesity, cardio-vascular disease, and musculoskeletal dysfunction.

What characteristics do we have as humans to differentiate us from apes? Ignoring the propensity to exist on a banana based diet, which some of us can (!) the ability to stand and walk with bipedal, reciprocal gait, for long periods and distances is truly what separates us. What allows that? The Ass, the big engine of walking, squatting and standing, the powerhouse of loading and lifting. The gorgeous Gluteals. Check out the flat asses on Gorillas and monkeys, and their close cousins, the weakling modern flat-assed humanoid. The increasing incidence of low-back pain, the hip arthritis so prevalent in western cultures, the persistent connection of knee, ankle, foot dysfunction all point to a common origin. You betcha, the flat, atrophied ass. 


In Simple and Sinister, my current favorite incantation on movement using a kettlebell, Pavel laments the loss of All-Terrain capability in humans. That is, the ability to negotiate any landscape, terrain, loads, speeds and directions that we as humans need, in order to optimally function. While our prior lives demanded speed, agility, power, endurance and strength to catch, kill and prepare our dinner, the range of function demanded by todays jobs do little to maintain our bodies in full working order.

Pavel discourages the idea of specialization, for all humans, even those training and performing at a professional level. When I hear clients talk of their mode of exercise in a single capacity, the loss of all-terrain-function comes into play as a contributor to injury. “I spin”, “I do yoga”, “I am a runner” or “I walk” means a limited portion of the movement and metabolic spectrum is being explored. The ability to Squat, Carry, Push, Pull, Twist, Throw, both Slow and Strong (Yang) and Hard and Fast (Yin) need to form the foundation of all sports, indeed all human physical endeavors. Gone, from my professional life, are the days of training and rehabilitating 3 x 10 reps with blue rubber band or 2 x 15 with #6 on cable column.


And enter the magical lump of metal, the cannonball with a handle, the Russian Kettlebell. Only the Kettlebell challenges all of these aspects of All-Terrain-Strength.

In the 3 plus years that I have been training with Ed, a student of Pavel’s, I have been able to see my own physique change from frequent, challenging kettlebell workouts. I have been able to bring it into my physical therapy domain, working with everyone from octagenarians, to young kids.  Some of the specific benefits that I have seen for kettlebell practice, from PT perspective, are as follows:

  • Restoration of hip mobility, hip hinge function: without a correct hinge, the pelvis cannot dissociate from the spine. The kettlebell demands hip hinge development, and gives quick feedback to the lazy practitioner. The mass of the kettlebell allows greater mobility under load, reducing the co-contraction around tight hip joints and facilitating relaxation into deeper mobility. 
  • Restoration of posterior chain function: the eccentric loading of the entire kinetic chain from the scapula to the heels, the development of elastic energy and recoil through the Hamstrings, the power resultant from complete core activation, and the muscular endurance unique to the kettlebell workouts resolve the majority of issues with LBP and musculoskeletal injuries.
  • Flexibility: with eccentric loading and core activation comes restoration of stability. There is no need for muscles like the Hamstrings and Trapezius to *hold on* when the co-ordination and core strength, motor control is there. Flexibility comes with inherent stability. Controlled movement, loaded with kettlebell mass, brings more mobility.
  • NM responsiveness: Response to perturbation, ability of body to perform in response to a sudden environmental change. This is the most important *Injury protective* aspect of KB training. Frequent practice with the kettlebell improves the ability to respond to changes in weight load, acceleration, deceleration, direction, torque
  • Physics education: most injury in workplaces involving lifting comes from poor alignment and use of levers. The body is not aligned correctly to manage the load. Lifting, swinging and moving the kettlebell teaches good alignment through correct loading process. Segmental stacking. Efficient movement through alignment of loads.
  • Co-contraction: Improving timing of contractions around the hips, spine and shoulders will reduce loads on articular surfaces. Common issues like Psoas dominance with inhibited Glutes cause inc hip loading. Pectoral dominance with Lat. and rotator cuff inhibition contribute to shoulder girdle overload and impingement. Correct kettlebell technique corrects all of that.
  • Scale-able. Used for kids with sensori-motor challenges, to competitive multisport athletes to re-educate loading and movement function, to geriatrics working on fall prevention, spinal instability, osteoporosis. Used from week one following rotator-cuff repair, to week 30 in return to punching hard in Mauy-Thai. Used from week one of a total hip replacement to restore loading responses, to week 16 to challenge squat strength and independent walking. Used from day one with postural dysfunction to teach the physics of vertical column organization. Used with Parkinsons tremor to calm the nervous system and facilitate neuromotor re-organization.
  • Efficient! One session of kettlebell training can incorporate pure strength work, anaerobic threshold work, cardio-vascular endurance work, and plyometrics! The most common excuse people use for not exercising (and it is an excuse…) is that they don’t have time, well the kettlebell solves that too. If you are unsure, ask anyone who took the workshop last weekend at Exceed (shed) where following a demonstration and instruction session, Ed led the group in a 10’ workout that left every single person in a sweaty, wobbly mess! 

In parting, take the challenge. Take a led, taught session or workshop with a trainer or therapist certified in Kettlebell use. Practice frequently. Ask. Watch. Challenge yourself. Learn to unlock the nuances that lie within this solid lump of metal. Your practice will change, and you will move closer to becoming an all-terrain animal again!




About sineadpt

physical therapist, PhD candidate, bike fiend, swim nut, run loony, multisport athlete, bike fitter, coach, general life enthusiast
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